Arsonist Williams dies in jail

The convicted synagogue firebomber apparently killed himself, Shasta officials say. 
By Peter Hecht -- Bee Staff Writer - (Published November 18, 2002) 

Benjamin Matthew Williams, a self-proclaimed white supremacist who admitted setting fire to three Sacramento synagogues, was found dead in an apparent suicide early Sunday in his jail cell in Shasta County. 

Williams, 34, was awaiting trial in Redding with his brother Tyler, 31, on charges of murdering a gay couple, Gary Matson, 50, and Winfield Mowder, 40, in July 1999. 

Williams and his younger brother, both of the Redding suburb of Palo Cedro, pleaded guilty in September 2001 to deliberately setting fires at the three Sacramento synagogues on June 18, 1999 -- Congregation B'nai Israel, Congregation Beth Shalom, Kenesset Israel Torah Center -- and a building housing an abortion clinic two weeks later. 

The arson attacks caused nearly $3 million in damage to the synagogues and prompted an outpouring of concern and unity among people of all faiths in the Sacramento area. The attacks were called one of the worst acts of anti-Semitism in recent U.S. history. 

Williams, who once vowed to become a "Christian martyr," was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison, and his brother was sentenced to 21 years and three months in the arson cases. 

The Shasta County Sheriff's Department reported that jail officers found Williams dead in his administrative-segregation unit at 6:30 a.m. Sunday. He had multiple slash wounds to his arms, legs and neck, apparently from a disposable jail-issue shaving razor that had been altered to expose the blade, authorities said. 

Williams was being kept in the segregation unit since his conviction Oct. 31 of attempted murder in an attack on a correctional officer. In the June 22 incident, Officer Timothy Renault, 24, suffered a skull fracture and broken jaw in an attack by Williams and another inmate. 

Williams, using a homemade hatchet fashioned from a drain cover, string and paper, hid in a shower stall and attacked Renault as he made his rounds. 

Williams, facing life in prison, was to be sentenced Dec. 2. 

Another inmate, Paul Gordon Smith Jr., is awaiting trial in the attack. 

Redding Police Sgt. Dan Kupsky said jail personnel had been checking on Williams every hour and last observed him sitting up in bed and reading about 1:30 a.m. 

But Shasta County Undersheriff Larry Schaller said Williams at some point hid behind a sink and toilet fixture and slashed himself. Authorities say he was found after he didn't respond to a jail officer's call for breakfast. 

"He used a sharp object -- a disposable razor blade -- to inflict some serious wounds," Schaller said. 

A news conference is scheduled for 11 a.m. today. 

Meanwhile, the brothers faced the death penalty if convicted in the murder of Matson and Mowder, who were found shot to death in their Happy Valley home July 1, 1999. That trial was scheduled to begin Dec. 10. 

In an interview with The Bee, the older Williams said he killed the pair because he believed their homosexuality violated the laws of God. 

"I'm not guilty of murder," he proclaimed. "I'm guilty of obeying the laws of the Creator." 

He later told a Sacramento television reporter for KOVR-TV Channel 13, that he also "mixed up ... all the Jewish cocktails" to set the synagogue blazes. 

Williams told The Bee that he wasn't concerned about the prospect of execution because he wanted to be a "Christian martyr" whose death could inspire others to lash out against Jews, homosexuals and others. 

In the end, his death apparently came at his own hand. 

According to procedure, Schaller said police agencies other than the Shasta County Sheriff's Department must investigate the in-custody death. The incident will be reviewed by the Redding Police Department, the Shasta County District Attorney's Office and the California Department of Justice crime lab. 


About the Writer 

The Bee's Peter Hecht can be reached at (530) 295-0627 or


Williams' test results released by coroner 

Maline Hazle 
Record Searchlight 

April 26, 2003 — 2:12 a.m. 

No traces of a prescribed anti-depressant — or any other drugs — were found in murder suspect Benjamin Matthew Williams' blood after his suicide last year, say results of a just released toxicology test. 

The Shasta County coroner's verdict — death by exsanguination, a suicide — was reached Tuesday, four months and five days after Williams killed himself in his Shasta County Jail cell. 

Release of the verdict freed autopsy and toxicology reports completed months ago, but kept sealed by the coroner's office. 

Also included were clues to what may have been Williams' final preparations for suicide. 

Williams, 34, bled to death from at least 75 separate wounds up to an inch deep, in his arms, legs and neck, the reports say. His body was found Nov. 17 by a jail guard bringing breakfast to his single-man cell. 

Chief Deputy Coroner Harry Bishop signed the final death verdict Tuesday, after convening a 15-member death review panel that included Sheriff-Coroner Jim Pope, police and coroner's investigators, a forensic pathologist, three grand jurors and a deputy district attorney. 

Bishop was not in Friday, nor was Pope. Undersheriff Larry Schaller said he did not know why it took longer than four months to reach a verdict in the Williams case, but speculated that logistics of convening the large panel may have contributed to the delay. 

Though he tested positive for caffeine, that was the only substance found in Williams' blood, says the toxicology report, which was completed Dec. 6 and received by the coroner's office Dec. 9. 

Drugs became an issue two months ago when one of Williams' attorneys revealed that his client had been taken off a medication some time in the 10 days before his death. 

The medication was Klonopin, a brand name for Clonazepam, an anti-seizure medication used to fight panic attacks. 

Attorney Russell Swartz of Redding said in February that Williams was to have been weaned off the medication in preparation for a series of tests the court had approved in preparation for his trial in the July 1, 1999, murders of Winfield Mowder, 40, and Gary Matson, 50. 

Instead Swartz said, the jail's medical staff abruptly stopped administering the medication. 

Williams had been convicted Oct. 31 of attempted murder and jail escape for the nearly fatal beating of jail guard Timothy Renault on June 22. 

Williams also faced trial early this year in the shootings of Matson and Mowder, the Happy Valley couple he bragged of having killed because they were gay. 

He and his brother, James Tyler Williams, 33, faced possible death penalties in that case. After his older brother died, Tyler Williams pleaded guilty to the murders and was sentenced to 28 years to life in prison. 

Describing the murders in interviews and written statements, both brothers said they were Christians carrying out God's orders to execute homosexuals. 

The brothers also shared racist and anti-Semitic hatreds and admitted to setting fires at synagogues and an abortion clinic in Sacramento in 1999. 

In death, Matthew Williams apparently clung to his beliefs, his Bible verses, the crude cutting tool he used to kill himself and a strange homemade amulet. 

Clad only in pink, jail-issue briefs, Williams jammed his cell door with cardboard, then spread a blanket between his cell toilet and the wall — out of sight should one of his jailers peek through the cell window. 

His "knife," which sheriff's deputies have said was made of a disposable razor blade with a handle fashioned from a ball point pen tube, was attached to a string that Williams wrapped around his right wrist, the coroner's report says. 

Around his neck was another slender string, possibly dental floss. And from it dangled a medallion of aluminum foil, the report says. 

Inside that amulet, which was about the size of a 50-cent piece, were papers with two scribbled Bible verses, a seed of unknown origin, a scrap of soap and a tiny piece of chocolate, said Redding police Sgt. Ben Reed, whose department investigated Williams' death. 

Reed didn't know which Bible verses were contained in the amulet, nor did Shasta County Deputy District Attorney Michael Bartram, who was prosecuting Williams. 

But nearby was a pencil and a Bible opened to Psalms 22 and 23, Bartram said. 

The 22nd psalm begins: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" and goes on to say, "I am a worm, and no man: scorned by men, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads . . .." 

And Psalm 23, frequently read at funerals, begins "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . .." 

Reporter Maline Hazle can be reached at 225-8266 or at

© Copyright 2003 Record Searchlight. All Rights Reserved. 

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